Remembering the Four Freedoms

It’s peak foliage season here in New England, and as in many years past I’ve made weekend plans to meet a friend in the picture perfect Western Massachusetts village of Stockbridge. While there, we will probably visit the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the gallery space dedicated to the Four Freedoms, four paintings that Rockwell created in 1943.

The Four Freedoms paintings are based on a 1941 speech that US President Franklin D. Roosevelt made to Congress in which he outlined the four freedoms that Americans most cherished:  Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear.

Remembering the Four Freedoms, I am reminded of the many field trips I took to the Norman Rockwell Museum with my ESL students during my two decades as the director of an Intensive English program.  I always found Rockwell’s paintings to be a rich resource to help our international students learn about American culture while exploring their own values.

In order to help my students explore the Four Freedoms, I would break the class into diverse cultural groups, and hand each group a set of four postcards with images of each freedom, and the following discussion guide:

copyright Norman Rockwell Museum
copyright Norman Rockwell Museum
  • Describe what you see in each of the pictures.
  • Describe the roles that each of these freedoms play in your everyday life.
  • Working with your group, think of another “freedom” that is important in your lives.  Draw a picture.
  • Rank the freedoms in order of their importance to you.
  • If you had to give up one of these freedoms, which one would it be?  Why?
  • Discuss the difference between “freedom of” and “freedom from.”
  • Do you think that people from other cultures might view these freedoms differently than people in your culture?  Why or why not?

Over the years, our program welcomed students from over 95 countries, so the cultural perspectives brought to each class were always quite diverse.  Still, I was consistently moved by the profound ideas and feelings expressed during the students’ group discussions, the nuances of their differences, and the strength of the common ground they shared. Indeed, the “Four Freedoms” President Roosevelt so eloquently described as particularly American during his wartime speech back in 1941 are, in truth, universally human desires.

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